Dave Shoji jokingly tells his ninth-ranked Hawaii volleyball team it is "driving him into retirement." The Rainbow Wahine can be ragged. One night it is their passing and another blocking. Sometimes the hitters simply can’t find the floor.
One quality, however, has been constant through the frustrations, foul-ups and free balls falling to the floor.
Hawaii has never quit. More than anything, that is why it hasn’t lost in two months, takes an NCAA-best 67-match conference winning streak into tonight’s tilt with UC Santa Barbara and has all but clinched the Big West title three weeks early.
At Stan Sheriff Center
» Today: No. 9 Hawaii (19-2, 12-0) vs. UC Santa Barbara (13-12, 6-4), 7 p.m.
» Saturday: Hawaii vs. Cal Poly (3-19, 2-8), 7 p.m.
» TV: OC Sports (Ch. 16)
» Radio: KKEA 1420-AM today and KHKA 1500-AM Saturday
The Wahine (19-2, 12-0 BWC) have gone five sets five times and lost the opening set eight times, including four of the past five. Last weekend’s road trip was a study in grind and bear it, but they kept winning.
"It wasn’t so pretty, there were a lot of ugly plays last week," UH setter Mita Uiato acknowledged, "but in the end we pulled it out and made plays when we had to — later in the game."
"We need to work on that," she concluded.
Shoji agrees — "There weren’t many style points last week, I can count them on one hand" — then offers an explanation.
"We have more athletes than we do pure volleyball players," he said. "We’re playing teams that have good volleyball players. We’re winning because we’re more athletic in the end. Games are pretty ugly because the ball keeps coming back to us and sometimes we don’t know how to handle that.
"What we can’t control is the ball coming back. We’re not hitting for a great percentage. The ball is being dug and we are not transitioning well. We should be digging as many balls as the other team, but when they’re scoring that means we’re not blocking or digging."
Only winning, with a team where Uiato has been the lone familiar face from last year for the past seven matches. Second-team All-American Emily Hartong has provided most of Hawaii’s punch from the outside after playing middle her first two seasons. Jade Vorster, who hit .537 last week, and Kalei Adolpho are first-year starters in the middle, helping to explain the inconsistency of the block.
The rest of the positions are filled by transfers Ali Longo and Ashley Kastl, and whoever is hot, or at least lukewarm, on the right side.
That could change tonight, when Shoji expects Jane Croson back. She was averaging nearly four kills, 2.5 digs and most of the serve-receptions until being suspended for breaking undisclosed team rules a month ago.
"I’m hoping she will be in the lineup Thursday," said Shoji, who expects Croson to take much of the pressure off Hartong. "Everything is on track for her to be eligible to play Thursday."
He added that Croson is on "a tight leash" and her status "day-to-day." It is just another aspect of the Wahine’s season on the brink. So far they have been survivors, overcoming Croson’s absence, all those slow starts and the Big West’s best shot every night out — almost. The Gauchos (13-12, 6-4) are currently in second place in the beyond-balanced BWC. When the teams met in Santa Barbara, they hit just .058 and were never in it.
It was one of the few nights this year that Hawaii, as Uiato put it, "stepped on somebody’s throat." But UH is still undefeated without Croson and already working on postseason variations.
"It never crossed my mind we might not win," Shoji said. "We have enough talent and we were playing well without her. But she makes us better, that’s for sure."